Designing with Letters

In January I will be traveling to the Midwest to teach, first in Bloomington, Indiana and then in Chicago. The workshop at the School of Fine Arts, Indiana University, organized by Paul Brown and Tom Walker, is not yet determined. However, the workshops in Chicago have already been announced. They will both be on the topic of Designing with Letters. The Society of Typographic Arts, in conjunction with the School of Media Arts, Columbia College Chicago, is hosting a one-day workshop on Friday, January 18 and the Chicago Calligraphy Collective is sponsoring a weekend version on Saturday and Sunday, January 19 and 20.

“Wurze des Wald…” by Rudolf Koch (early 1920s)

This workshop originated as a class at the School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s when many designers considered type a four-letter word that conjured up the drudgery of comping and greeking fake letters. The joy of fonts, ushered in by desktop publishing, was still in the future. The goal of the course was to demonstrate that effective and exciting designs could be created without the use of images (photographs, drawings, illustrations, cartoons, etc.); that words and letters alone could do the job. Many of the ideas behind the course came from the writings of Nicolete Gray and Massin, especially her book Lettering as Drawing (1970), originally published in two parts: The Moving Line and Contour and Silhouette, and his book Letter and Image (1970).

I came up with nine topics—line, shape, negative space, pattern, rhythm, substitution, alteration, decoration, color—each of which was explored in one class over the course of a ten-week semester. Between 1995 and 1997 I adapted the SVA course as a two-day weekend workshop with four topics per day (substitution was combined with alteration) for the Associazione Calligrafica Italiana in Milano and then for Lettere Danzanti in Asolo, Italy. A few years later, I taught this compressed version for calligraphy groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego; and in 2005 I did a shortened one-day version for the Society of Typographic Aficionadoes (SoTA) at TypeCon. And now, after nearly a decade, I am bringing it to Chicago in its full weekend form for the CCC and in its SoTA form for the STA.

Designing with Letters emphasizes exploring and experimenting with letterforms. It is not a class for learning calligraphy or the drawing of letters. Instead, it welcomes all forms of lettermaking—calligraphy, script, cut-out letters, carved letters, drawn letters, type, etc.—as possible sources for solving design problems. Numerous examples of designing with letters taken from a broad range of historical and geographical sources are shown. Some of the people whose work is shown for inspiration are: Ben Shahn, David Jones, Hans Schmidt, Saul Steinberg, Piet Zwart, Bradbury Thompson, Herb Lubalin, Fred Woodward, Jan van de Velde, Hermann Zapf, Werner Schneider, Susan Skarsgard and Carl Kurtz.

The STA/Columbia College workshop has six places left (as of December 18). For details and to sign up go to the STA-Chicago website. If the weather cooperates, the class will include a short lettering walking tour in the Printers’ Row neighborhood.

The CCC workshop has approximately 6 places left as well (as of December 16). For details and to sign up go to the Chicago Calligraphy Collective website.

Here are examples of the eight topics that the weekend workshop will explore. The one-day workshop will tackle the first four of them.


Spencerian lettering by Tony Di Spigna (n.d.)


Detail from Bodley 431 (SC. 2368), fol. 96 (Bodleian Library, Oxford University) 1553–1558


Detail from Lindisfarne Gospels, f.3 (696–714).


From Beisiele Künstlerischer Schrift by Rudolf von Larisch (1904)


1994 New Year’s card by Werner Schneider


Boîte à musique. Karl Gerstner (n.d.)


From the Terrace by John O’Hara. Bookjacket. Hans Tisdall (1959).


Gino Severini exhibition poster. Benno Wissing (1963)